The expression on the face of Oliver Russell, Earl of Iver was of a boredom so profound that even the most forceful of matchmaking mamas thought twice before pushing their nervous, tongue-tied daughters in his direction.
"Observing the latest batch with your usual interest I see, Iver." A languid voice disturbed whatever had been going on in the head behind the mask of ennui and the earl turned slightly.
"Carrington," he acknowledged briefly. The man so addressed gestured very slightly to one of the debutantes currently taking part in the country-dance,
"Miss Stephanie Hallard," he informed his friend, "beautiful, rich, sole heir to her father's estate."
"Indeed." Iver noted the brunette beauty, brought, by the movements of the dance, to stand opposite them.
"A diamond, my friend, a diamond," enthused Carrington. Iver paid no attention to this obvious partiality. Thomas Carrington was forever falling in and out of love, generally with the most beauteous the season had to offer, but had so far managed to go through seven seasons without being caught in parson's mousetrap. Miss Hallard was only one in a long line of those who had caught his admiring attention.
For himself, he found the girl as boring as all the others. Oh, there was nothing wrong with her looks, despite the fact that the current fashion was for tiny blondes and she was a violet-eyed brunette. After all, he had often cynically remarked that there was nothing so fickle as fashion and this girl would probably change everything back in favour of dark hair.
Perhaps it was her conversation; strictly limited to the weather, the current author enjoying the ton's favour and the most recent balls and routs she had attended. The same topics used by every young girl, if nerves did not render them completely silent. Whatever the reason, his cursory interest in her exquisite looks had quickly passed during their dance.
He lazily observed the beauty curtsey to her partner and give him a smile as dazzling as had been shown to him earlier and, for want of something better to do with his eyes, allowed them to follow her back to her mother.
A weary sigh was caught in mid-breath and he ruthlessly cut off Carrington's ramblings on the beauty's physical and monetary attributes,
"Who is the woman with Mrs. Hallard?"
"Eh?" Carrington raised his quizzing glass and peered through it at the group. Iver sardonically noted how the belle noticed and then quickly appeared not to, her colour slightly heightened under the combined attention of two very eligible young men.
"The one in sea-green."
"Oh, her," his tone dismissive, Carrington identified her, "she is Miss Hallard's cousin. Some strange name... Nora, no, Nyah Patterson. Daughter of Mrs. Hallard's younger brother. No fortune, no looks... I say, Witherton-Boon has come in." Carrington disappeared into the crowd, leaving Iver to stare unashamedly at the young woman sitting demurely beside the older woman. She was nothing compared to her cousin, and he could not say what it was in her that had caught his jaded eye.
A moment later, he received a severe shock as, if aware of the scrutiny, she raised her eyes to meet his and, after another moment of observation, raised her eyebrows. Groping blindly for his own glass, he raised it, intending to firmly depress the chit's curiosity. She merely watched with fascination, a slight smile curving her lips as if amused at the antics of a child. Irritation rapidly displaced Iver's boredom and he dropped the glass to glare at her and then pointedly turn away.
Later in the evening, after several times having had to force himself not to look in her direction again, he somehow found himself standing before her. She inclined her head graciously, for all the world as if he was the social inferior and she was doing him a favour by noticing him.
Iver was already furious with himself for his awareness of her and more so that she seemed to have noticed it, and so gave her a disdainful look before turning to her aunt.
"Lord Iver." Concealing any astonishment she might feel at this unprecedented honour, she smiled, "I don't believe you have met my niece, Miss Patterson. She was fetching me some negus when you were introduced to my daughter earlier. Nyah, this is the Earl of Iver." The young woman rose to her feet and curtseyed awkwardly,
"Lord Iver," she murmured politely. As she straightened, her eyes lifting to meet his once more, he saw the dancing light of amusement, inviting him to share in whatever it was that she found so humorous in the situation. He nodded coolly, his manner barely polite,
"Miss Patterson." There was a long pause during which he should have been offering to dance or initiating some form of conversation, but which he used to depress the minx's pretensions. Showing no signs of discomfort at this rude treatment, Miss Patterson took up the challenge,
"Are you enjoying the evening, my lord?" Iver shrugged,
"It is much like any other, I suppose."
"For you perhaps." He eyed her thoughtfully. There had been a hint of wistfulness in her tone, not totally suppressed.
"And you, Miss Patterson, are you enjoying yourself?"
"Oh yes, prodigiously!" He blinked at this open enthusiasm, so used to the pretended ennui of the other debutantes. The sparkle in the brown eyes and the complete lack of maidenly modesty in the way she met his eyes caused him to ask,
"But, do you not dance? I do not believe I have seen you on the floor?" He had the satisfaction of seeing her falter slightly, her cheeks colouring and then was surprised by a sense of shame at his unkind words.
"No, sir, I do not dance."
"My niece injured her leg a year ago and has not yet fully recovered." Mrs. Hallard displayed her ability to keep track of more than one conversation at once and there was a sharp edge of protectiveness to her tone.
"Indeed," Iver was once more the picture of boredom, "how... unfortunate." Miss Patterson's chin rose at the indifference in his tone, but she only said,
"Thank you, sir," then turned to her aunt, "may I fetch you some more negus, aunt, and perhaps for you also Lady Poole?" The two ladies so addressed accepted with smiles and Nyah turned.
She limped, not heavily, but noticeably, and garnered looks of sly interest and pity. Whispered comments followed her path as she made her way towards the refreshment table, apparently oblivious of the stir she was creating.
"No money. None at all."
"Crippled in the accident that killed her parents."
"Poor as the proverbial church mouse, my dear."
"No one will ever marry a poor cripple. What was Mrs. Hallard thinking!"
"Shame, such a shame. No prospects, of course."
Considering the apparent instant dislike in which he had taken Miss Patterson, Iver thought that he should have felt relieved at this further evidence of her deficiencies, but instead, another twinge of guilt smote him.
Unable to stand anymore and suddenly acutely uncomfortable with his own actions, Iver turned and made his way from the ballroom.
Nyah turned from her task just in time to observer Lord Iver's departure. A small, wistful smile tugged at her lips before she had to concentrate on maneuvering her way back to her aunt with the two glasses. The task was made that much harder by her limp and the pitying looks she received; though she was learning to ignore the latter.
With the refreshments safely delivered, she could allow herself to reflect on the recent encounter with one of the most eligible bachelors on the marriage mart. He had first caught her attention eight days earlier at a musical evening. Indeed, it would be difficult not to notice the earl with the stir he made every time he entered a room.
The stark black and white evening clothes became him very well, Nyah recalled, especially when it made his eyes so noticeable. They were a brilliant sea green, rimmed with a darker line and Nyah was unashamed to admit that her decided preference for the colour could be dated to the first time she had seen them. Once she had managed to tear her eyes from his, she had noted how perfectly his body matched that of the ideal; broad of shoulder, narrow of hip and finely shaped, well-muscled legs that proclaimed him the Corinthian. Oh yes, the Earl of Iver was the darling of Society and he knew it.
And he was bored by it.
Nyah had watched him dance with her cousin, had seen the mask of ennui become deeper and deeper, had heard how his voice had been more languid and drawling when he had delivered Steph safely back to her mother. She had then watched him take to propping up a pillar and spend the rest of the evening observing the shifting mass of people in a listless fashion that he made no effort to conceal, unnerving anyone unfortunate enough to catch his eye. Except her.
When she had become aware of his scrutiny she had been unable to suppress the demon on mischief that had prompted her forward meeting of his eyes and the quizzical expression she knew had been written on her face. The raising of the quizzing glass had almost made her laugh and his turning away had brought on a gurgle of amusement that he had not noticed in his pique.
The meeting and his consequent incivility had not been unexpected, but her reaction to his nearness, to his attention finally turned on her, had been. Her heart had fluttered very strangely in her chest and then froze and sank as her aunt had explained her circumstances. She had no doubt that he had heard also the whispered comments as she had retreated towards the refreshments table and had struggled with cold misery for several minutes. It still lurked, deep in her heart, of a more shallow nature than her grief for her parents, but more easily stirred by people's cruelty.
The Earl of Iver had made his dislike of her clear, and even if he hadn't, no one would wish to marry a penniless cripple. Her aunt's wish to give her a Season was laudable in it's generosity, but Nyah's heart ached with the reactions she was receiving and the wish that it had been her mother at her side with her father standing proudly in the background as their little girl made her bow to society.
"Nyah?" Her cousin's voice, breathless from her dancing, broke into her reverie and she thankfully turned her attention from her unproductive thoughts.
"Having fun, Steph?" Her cousin laughed and, after a quick glance at her mother, drew her off to sit in the privacy of a nearby alcove,
"Oh, yes. Mr. Ackhurst is so amusing and has said that he will compose an ode to my eyes." Steph giggled and batted her eyelashes at Nyah impishly. Her cousin chuckled,
"You should save that look for him when he reads it to you." Steph laughed again and then slouched back in a way that would have had her mother paling in horror had that lady been paying any attention.
"I saw Lord Iver talking to you." Nyah was almost successful in ignoring the little pang in her heart,
"Yes. I think that I have offended him."
"No!" Steph sat up again and stared at her cousin in disbelief, "you? How could you have possibly offended him?" Nyah related the occurrences of the evening in a lively way that belied the longing she felt. Steph alternately smile and shook her head through the whole. The smile abruptly disappeared though, when Nyah related the words he had spoken that had lead to her retreat.
"Infamous! That... that... rudesby!" Nyah smiled at this championship and gave her cousin an affection hug which was fiercely returned,
"Never mind, Nyah, he isn't worth it."
"Dearest, most people would not agree," Nyah replied, half-laughing.
"Well, I do! Oh dear, here is Sir Peter for his dance." Another quick hug followed her words, "pay no attention to Lord Iver, do not dwell on it."
Nyah watched Steph trip gracefully away on the arm of a tall, slender young man whose colour was very high at the idea of dancing with the Belle. Only three years separated her from her cousin's youthful eighteen, but it felt like considerably more sometimes. It would matter a great deal to Society that Lord Iver had taken Miss Patterson in disfavor, and though the protection of her aunt would count amongst some, there would be others that would use this excuse to draw back. Nyah sighed and shifted uneasily, aware that whatever tiny hope she had nourished for a marriage had just shrank even smaller.
"My dear? Is your leg paining you?" Her movements had caught her aunt's kindly eye and she summoned up a smile,
"Oh no, I'm fine, Aunt Hetty." Her aunt looked at her with warm affection,
"You've gone very pale, my love," she murmured gently.
"I'm fine, really," Nyah repeated, anxious not to spoil her cousin's evening. Her aunt hesitated and then patted the clasped hands that rested in Nyah's lap,
"You're a good girl, Nyah," she approved and turned back to her conversation with Lady Poole. Nyah suppressed a sigh of relief, which might also be misinterpreted, and turned her attention back to the dancers.
Further information on Miss Patterson's sad circumstances was forced to Iver's attention when he called on a close friend the following morning. Lady Althea's morning room was filled with callers, all ready to talk about the latest beauty and, with much more interest, the cousin.
It seemed that Miss Patterson's parent's had been killed a little over a year before in a carriage accident. The same accident had left Miss Patterson crippled and, since her father had been dilatory in making provision for his daughter, the money went to another relative. A nephew, or cousin or some such. Miss Patterson was left to depend on the charity of her aunt and uncle, probably for the rest of her life, for who would marry a cripple?
Iver left after ten minutes, annoyed to the point where he found it difficult to be polite to the tabbies. Althea only smiled at him and gave a tiny, rueful lift of her shoulders.
It was in this wrathful mood that the next person he should encounter was, ironically enough, Miss Patterson. She was struggling with a pile of books and a cane, attempting to free a hand to find a coin for the crossing sweeper who was eyeing her endeavors with open curiosity.
Iver muttered something under his breath, tossed a coin to the urchin and relieved Miss Patterson of her load. She looked up, caught off guard
"Sir! Oh, Lord Iver, it is you."
"Yes, Miss Patterson," he bowed his head slightly, "it is I. For goodness sake," he exploded next, "if you know you are to collect so many books, why do you not bring a footman with you?" He was once again caught out by her manner as, instead of glaring at him, she gifted him with a sunny smile,
"Oh, but I do." She gestured behind her and Iver noticed for the first time a stalwart young man holding a pile of packages. He raised an eyebrow,
"Perhaps you should have brought two footmen?" he suggested, his question edging on the contemptuous as his frayed temper sought an outlet.
"Oh yes, you're probably right, but I didn't think there would be so much. It's my own fault," she confided engagingly, "you see, I couldn't decide between the books, so I brought all four and then I remembered that Steph had expressed a preference for some handkerchiefs see saw and I thought to purchase those..." He cut her off before she could list her entire inventory, however, her cheerful response had had the desired effect of dampening his ire and his tone was calmer when he spoke next.
"Indeed. Perhaps I might escort you home?" She looked startled and he couldn't ignore, to his chagrin, the slight wariness in her eyes,
"I wouldn't wish to put you out of your way, my lord."
"It is no trouble," he replied and was surprised to find that he spoke the truth. Offering his free arm to her he set a slow pace in deference to her uneven steps.
"Miss Patterson, forgive me, but would it not have been wiser to send a maid on these errands, or at least, take a carriage?" She looked up at him,
"You mean because of my leg? But you see, I must exercise it if I am to regain some use." The heavy way she leaned on his arm prompted his next comment,
"It is possible to exercise too much, Miss Patterson." A dull colour climbed her cheeks and almost instantly she had lifted some of the pressure from his arm. He pulled her gently to a stop.
"Please, I meant no offense..." he broke off as he noted that her colour had only deepened and sighed. "Miss Patterson, I wish to ask for your forgiveness for my behavior last night." Her eyes flew to his once more,
"Yes," he interrupted firmly, "I was boorish and insulting and I... I am ashamed of what I said."
"But you did not know. About my leg, I mean..." she broke off, flustered and Iver, conscious of the interest observation of the footman behind them drew her onwards again, suppressing the desire to put his arm around her waist to better offer his support as her limp became more pronounced.
"It does not matter," he replied softly, "my behavior was inexcusable and I am sorry for it."
"Thank you, sir." He glanced down in time to intercept the shy smile she gave him and felt a glow start deep inside his heart.
"We are here," he noted their arrival with a twinge of disappointment. He wondered at himself for wanting to progress further in this acquaintance, but refused her invitation to come inside.
"No, no. You are tired and need to rest. However, if you will permit, may I call tomorrow?" The request surprised him as much as it did her, if her expressive face was anything to judge by, but she nodded and smiled.
"I should like that." He began to appreciate the genuineness that brought her to speak what she truly felt rather than use social niceties.
"And, Lord Iver? Thank you." He bowed and set off down the street, resisting the urge to look behind him.
Nyah seated herself wearily on a handy bench and patiently waved Steph's anxious care away,
"I'll rest here while you go with Sir Peter, Steph. I'll be fine." With touching reluctance, Steph allowed herself to lead away by her tall suitor. Nyah felt only a little guilty about abandoning her chaperoning duties, but doubted that her cousin would come to any harm while viewing the Crown Jewels with so bashful a suitor. Add to that the crowds of people and she felt quite justified in easing the pain in her leg for a short time.
"Overdoing it again, Miss Patterson?" A by now familiar voice spoke above her and she smiled up at Lord Iver. He, however, was scowling down at her with concern. "Will you never be sensible?"
Nyah had spent enough time in the earl's company preceding weeks to not now take offense at his rather brusque manner of speaking, particularly so since it seemed to be his way of showing his regard for her health.
"A few minutes of rest will put me right, my lord. You must not trouble yourself." He shook his head slightly and seated himself next to her. She took in the splendor of his coat of navy blue superfine and dove gray inexpressibles. His Hessians were, as befitted a true Corinthian, polished to a shine so great they seemed to reflect her face. Upon his head, his curly-brimmed beaver was set at a precise and stylish angle upon his dark locks.
"But I am troubled," he insisted, "once again I find you pale with pain written in your eyes. It is becoming a regular occurrence!" Nyah blinked and had to acknowledge the truth of his words. In the past few weeks, the earl had five times more come upon her in the street, struggling with her packages and, consequently, scolded her roundly for her foolishness. At a musical evening, discovering her standing in a queue for the supper table, he had lead her firmly to a chair, seated her and informed her that he would bring her something to eat and if she stirred he would carry her back. There were other times also when he had leant her the support of his arm and she looked back at him guiltily.
"I do not want to be a burden, you see." He sighed heavily, his expression softening,
"Miss Patterson, I believe I can quite confidently speak for your aunt and your cousin, and most especially for myself, when I tell you that you are not a burden." Nyah blushed hotly at this emphatic speech.
"Miss Patterson, you need looking after." Astonished, she stared at him for a moment, and then hastily averted her eyes from the odd expression in his.
"My... My lord," she murmured uncertainly. A warm hand closed briefly over hers where it was gripping the edge of the bench and then was as quickly removed.
"Dam... dash it, what a place to choose," he muttered. She suspected that she was not supposed to have heard this undertone, but, having done so, could not help but wonder at his meaning.
"Oh, Nyah! You would never believe.... Lord Iver!" Steph's voice broke through her discomfort and she raised her eyes, careful to avoid looking at the earl. He rose smoothly to his feet,
"Miss Hallard, Sir Peter." Wasting no time, he began abruptly, "your cousin should be at home resting, Miss Hallard." Colour flooded Steph's cheeks and she stumbled into a speech made up of anxious half-sentences for a few moments before Nyah took pity on her confusion and, setting her cane firmly, rose to her feet. She was aided by Lord Iver's hand under her elbow.
"You must not worry, Steph, Lord Iver is prone to exaggeration," she frowned her disapproval at him before continuing, "I believe the plan was to drive in the Park on the way home?" She noted the glare the earl directed her way out of the corner of her eye.
"If you're not well, Miss Patterson, perhaps we should go straight home?" Sir Peter, never a confident man and made even less so in the presence of the self-assured earl, sounded uncertain.
"Indeed, that is exactly what she should do," Iver approved. Nyah rolled her eyes and turned to face the earl,
"Riding in a carriage cannot possibly..." He interrupted her ruthlessly,
"At this time of day, I cannot imagine that you will be home in less than an hour and a half, not to mention being stopped by acquaintances and having to make conversation. You are fagged to death and should be resting. In bed."
His angry words and their accompanying glower was made much less effective by the worry she noted in his green eyes.
"Sir Peter, you have your groom with you?" At the younger man's nod he continued, "then I suggest you take Miss Hallard with you to the Park and I shall bring Miss Patterson to her home."
With her admittedly feeble protests ruthlessly overborne, Nyah quickly found herself being gently lifted into a phaeton, a rug tucked around her despite the fine weather and her comfort anxiously inquired into.
"Thank you, I am most... snug ." She surreptitiously eased the rug as he urged the horses into motion.
"Lord Iver?" There was so long a hesitation that she raised her eyes to look at his profile. It was grimly set and, when he glanced briefly down at her, rather strained.
"Is something wrong, sir?"
"Miss Patterson, when I said that you needed taking care of..." His uncharacteristic uncertainty unnerved her,
"Yes, sir," she whispered.
"Well, I... Devil it, I choose the worst places," he groaned. Nyah couldn't bring herself to look at him and stared fixedly at her hands. The horses, already moving slowly, were drawn into a walk and turned into a little used side road.
"Miss Patterson, I realise that in our short acquaintance I seem to have done nothing but scold and lecture you..."
"Oh no!" Nyah was moved, despite her inner turmoil, to dispute his words.
"No. Indeed, sir, you have been all that is kind in your solicitousness."
"Our memories would appear to differ, Miss Patterson. I am certain that I remember scolds and lectures." Nyah swallowed with difficulty, finding herself oddly caught between tears and laughter.
"No, of a certainty, no," she repeated in a shaken voice.
"You are too good, Miss Patterson." His voice sounded none too steady either and they progressed at a snail's pace for several minutes in silence.
"It is because... It is because I have come to... care for you very greatly, Miss Patterson."
"In fact..." he stopped and cleared his throat, "in fact, Miss Patterson, I find that I have fallen in love with you." The words burst from him, accompanied a second later by a sigh of relief so profound that Nyah found her lips twitching with amusement. She had never thought to see the poised, almost cocksure, earl so unsure of himself.
"Miss Patterson?" She raised her eyes at his anxious tone,
"Lord Iver?" She inquired. There was a breathless moment and then his lips were on hers in a kiss so warm and gentle, his arms so strong and secure around her that tears spilled from beneath her lashes.
"My dear! Nyah, please, you must not cry." A large handkerchief was first pressed into her nerveless fingers and then whisked away again as he took on the task of wiping away her tears, all the time uttering frantic apologies,
"I am so sorry. I never meant... If I have offended..." She stilled the tumble of words by pressing her fingers to his lips and then catching her breath at the expression that flared in his eyes at her touch,
"You have not offended me, sir. It is just... I had not thought...."
"I have rushed things." He sounded so depressed that Nyah was once again moved to protest.
"No, sir!" His eyes lit with hope,
"Perhaps I have not treated you in a way that might lead you to suspect... but from the first moment I saw you..." More and more did Nyah warm to this unexpectedly vulnerable side and if there had been any doubts left in her mind before, she found that they had now vanished.
I have nothing to complain about in the way that you have treated me, my lord."
"Oliver, my name is Oliver." She repeated it shyly,
"Oliver. It is just... I am a cripple." Somehow the avowal that her feelings matched his twisted on her tongue and she felt her face crumple at the words that emerged instead. She tried to turn away, but was prevented by gentle fingers under her chin,
"I know it," he murmured softly, "but it matters not. It never did and it never will."
"I will never walk sound," she whispered.
"Then I shall carry you everywhere," he assured her in warm tones.
"I shall slow you down."
"I will never leave you behind."
"I will never be able to dance with you."
"I loathe dancing."
"I am not your equal."
"No, you are my better in every possible way." Nyah tried once more,
"The ton can go to the..." Lord Iver broke off with an effort and reined his horses to a complete stop. Fortunately, the street was empty at the moment and neither cared very much for who might be watching from behind the windows.
"Nyah, it does not matter to me that you are less than perfect. If you have not noticed, I have a few deficiencies of character that far outweigh your physical imperfections, and," he hurried on, "if you are about to mention your lack of fortune.... Do not!" Nyah subsided obediently, a reluctant smile beginning to tug at her lips.
"Can you offer me any hope at all, Nyah?" Thrilling at the repeated use of her name on his lips and the sound of his wistful longing, Nyah took a deep breath and lifted her eyes to meet his,
"All the hope in the world, Oliver, and my heart with it." He froze, as if not quite able to believe what he was hearing and then swept her to him, kissing her in a way so totally different from the first that she could do nothing but return the sentiment with all the passion at her command.
Which, as Lord Iver would later declare, was considerable.
© 2001 Copyright held by the author.